By Art Waskey
In his book Thriving on Chaos, Tom Peters states, “If you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention.” The rate of change in the sales world has been accelerated by digitalization and I have noted that this has caused a lot of confusion. To put the chaos in order, I find that taking the time to plan a solution to the problem is the best approach. As Collin Powell said, “There is no secret to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.” Let’s look at how to build a successful sales team for the digital age.
Changing sales dynamics
Prior to the pandemic, the distributor sales strategy was based on the complementary pairing of outside sales persons with inside customer service teams. Each group had contrasting skill sets. The outside team was the face of the company that brought in the customers, while the inside group took care of the details. They worked together to satisfy customer needs.
With the introduction of digital capabilities like ERPs, CRMs, ecommerce, AI-driven customer analytics, the dynamics of selling has been radically altered. The digitizing of customer data has enabled businesses to become increasingly effective in identifying and meeting customer demand.
Today’s inside sales team has new resources that enable it to take on more complex roles. With customer analytics and AI-generated insights on their desktops, they can be more proactive and less reactive.
As B2B buyer preferences shift toward digital communications and ecommerce, distributors have the opportunity to utilize inside sales reps to interact with customers at a lower cost than by using the outside sales team. According to research from Distribution Strategy Group, (“The Inside Sales Playbook for Distributors”), the cost of sales for a proactive inside sales rep is 30-50% lower than for a field sales rep. In addition, the average inside salesperson can interact with up to 25 contacts per day, while their outside peers can only meet with three or four.
Expanding Your Inside Sales Team
A report from the National Association of Wholesale Distributors (NAW), “Why Heads of Sales Should Expand Their Inside Sales Functions,” provides a good check list for the steps you should take to build your inside sales team in the digital era:
- Understand customer behavior and interests
- Make relevant upsell and cross-sell recommendations
- Know when accounts are at risk of churning
- Make more connections with small- and medium-sized accounts
- Reach sales quotas quickly and efficiently
- Coordinate with other teams and departments for a better customer experience
Reframing the Outside Sales Team
With the changing role of an inside sales team, the outside sales team’s value proposition role shifts from one that is transactional (product information, pricing, inventory availability, shipping information, and billing accuracy) to one of counselor/partner profit producer (manufacturing productivity, problem resolution, and digital software training). The sales relationship’s basis in trust remains critical, however. The client must believe the field rep is working in the customer’s best interest.
Let’s look at the adjustments that need to be made for outside sales to succeed. In a Distributor Strategy Group webinar (“How Distributors Use CRMs Today,” September 29, 2022) Mike Marks of Indian River Consulting emphasizes some key transition factors. To ensure implementation of a solid approach for outside sales in the digital era he suggests the following: (Note: Before this process begins, significant research has been performed and the ERP, ecommerce, CRM software provider is in place.)
- Create an Executive Digital Sales Committee (EDSC) – To ensure a successful implementation of the new role of an effective outside sales territory manager, create an EDSC. The sooner a team is engaged in designing the process, the greater its effectiveness and success. This committee of 6-8 people should include an executive facilitator, outside sales reps, an IT resource, and, possibly, an outside consultant.
- The outside sales team must understand the importance of a successful transition to top management. A knowledgeable facilitator should work with the team to define the most common situations faced by outside sales. The end goal is to listen to what the sales team wants and to do your best to give it to them. Allow the sales team to pick the best two territory managers to represent their needs on the team. In most cases, they will select their high performers. This committee should ensure that a top down organizational cultural change comes first.
- Build the plan – Marks suggest Five Core Processes:
- Territory Intelligence – Identify which customers and prospects offer the highest potential to grow at the lowest cost.
- Call Management – Analyze where it is best to invest sales calls and adjust as necessary.
- Opportunity Pipeline – Pay attention to major transaction opportunities that will increase your close rate.
- Performance Measurement – Determine if the defined activities generate the desired results.
- Coaching to Adjust or Improve Performance – Create long-term results by individualized monthly reviews.
- Train for successful software implementation – Once the EDSC has worked with the software developer and built the plan, engage in extensive training. Most software implementation failures occur because not enough time has been spent on training, post-rollout modifications, and continually improved process design.
- Build Comprehensive Performance Score (CPS) – Develop a CPS that measures the effectiveness of the Five Core Processes listed above. Goals are negotiated between the sales manager and individual reps and measured monthly and year-to-date.
- Coaching Accountability – Each rep should have a monthly review of his/her dashboard with the sales manager. The sales manager is successful when he/she has effectively acknowledged good performance and is coaching for improvements.
- If all the reps in a manager’s area are meeting their goals and the area is not growing, the manager has failed to properly identify the right CPS.
- According to Michele Richardson and Russ Sharer, authors of Agile & Resilient, research shows that top sales professionals exhibit behavioral characteristics of being competitive, interactive, and versatile. A public ranking of dashboard benchmark results helps create a competitive, success driven culture.
- Recalibrate – The key to a successful digital outside sales program includes providing a process control that helps to continuously improve its customer-facing selling effort and the overall customer experience. Each distributor implementation will be different depending on its corporate culture, products and services, and customer base.
The pandemic accelerated the development of the digital tools and systems needed to meet evolving customer needs. These systems exist to help customers better invest their time in improving effectiveness and to ensure a better customer experience.
The objective of a successful digital sales team is to remove any stress caused by these developments. An effective digitally integrated sales program includes the elements covered above and can eliminate much of the confusion that can be caused by a lack of understanding. Put your carefully constructed digital sales strategy plan in place today.